In January, officials broke ground on the new $4 million headquarters for the Cambodia Securities Exchange. Situated along a northern stretch of Freedom Park, a short skip from Wat Phnom, the French colonial-era building is a suitable home for the two-year-old bourse, which now operates out of Canadia Tower. The site, expected to open in early 2014, used to house the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
The CSX building heralds a future of prosperity. But just next door, in a two-storey structure dating back to the 1920s, Cambodia’s first museum of money is a nod to the economic past.
Commissioned by the National Bank of Cambodia, the monetary-themed history exhibit is slated to open in 2015.
“The NBC wishes to have a museum for the benefit of the nation; especially for the benefit of young people to learn and understand the history of money and the role of the central bank,” said Nguon Sokha, director-general of the
NBC. “Many central banks in the world have such kind of museums.”
Visitors will learn about the development of the riel and should be able to view currency displays from different eras of Cambodian life.
Canada, China, Germany and the United States all have similar museums, mostly for tourists. The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago showcases retired coins and banknotes, examples of counterfeit currency, shreds of unfit bills and a “million dollar cube”, a box-shaped stack of bills tallying $1 million.
“We want [the museum] to keep old documents and show people our history of coins and bills,” said an accountant from the central bank, who declined to be named since he was not authorised to speak to the media about the project.
He said the NBC is fully funding the two-storey museum, but would not disclose the figure.
The bank employee of 25 years added that, while US dollars are commonly used in Cambodia, they won’t have a place in the exhibit. American banknotes have been the Kingdom’s default currency since the UN peacekeeping operation in 1993 pumped them into the economy, sidelining the Cambodian riel that first came on the scene after independence from France in 1953.
The riel was circulated heavily up until 1974, but was quashed by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-to-late 1970s.
Some see beneficial side effects for the riel in the efforts to tell its story through a curated exhibit open to all.
“To have a museum about Cambodian money would definitely help the current local population to have a clearer understanding of the national currency,” said collector Allan Lim, author of the history Currency of Cambodia. “It could give pride to the nation [that] had lost trust in the riel since the ’70s and ’80s.”
Lim, who lives in Melbourne and has Cambodian parents, says his heritage sparked an interest in the country’s currency. Now, he has “possibly one of the biggest collections of Cambodian money in the world”, and has traced its
usage throughout time. He is considering donating some of it to the museum.
Cambodia, Lim said, has had various notes and coinage in circulation over the past five centuries.
Finds of silver and gold coins date back to Nokor Phnom, an ancient pre-Angkorian kingdom. Coins from the 15th through to the 18th century bore designs of rabbits, elephants, horses, crabs, peacocks, lotus flowers and the Garuda, a mythical bird in Hindu and Buddhist religions.
There is antique currency from King Norodom’s 19th-century rule, and French Indochina piastre coins and banknotes, used across Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam from 1885 to 1952, during the French protectorate period.
The project to introduce the riel stopped short in 1975, when Khmer Rouge leaders tightened their grip on Cambodia. Though they abolished private property, declared pre-Year Zero currency worthless and blew up the central bank, not even the communist revolutionaries could resist printing up their own currency, which was never put into widespread circulation.
According to Lim, when the riel was finally reinstated in 1979, the government gave away banknotes to encourage its use.
Since its reintroduction, the National Bank of Cambodia continues to release new denominations, including the May issue of the 100,000 riel note, the equivalent of $25.
It’s not clear what forms of Cambodian currency will go into the museum, or if the exhibit will focus entirely on the more contemporary riel.
The opening of the first money museum is still a long way off. Renovations on the building will preserve the integrity of the French colonial architecture, said a subcontractor working on the site last week. Most recently, the structure housed a travel agency before being abandoned in 2001.